Re-opening the Case: A Chinese Murder

December 16, 2011

Paul French, Midnight in Peking: How the murder of a young Englishwoman haunted the last days of old China, Camberwell: Viking, 2011

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

All tragedies are personal, and all moments of profound social transformation are experienced by individuals. The major success of Paul French’s new book is that he focuses on the murder of Pamela Werner in Peking and never loses sight of her individuality, and of her father’s despair and determination to uncover the truth about her death, while also illuminating the complex political and social life of China in the decisive year of 1937.

Pamela Werner was a nineteen year old student whose mutilated corpse was left at the foot of the Fox Tower in Peking, an ancient and reputedly haunted imperial fortification close to the Foreign Legation and set on the fringe of Peking’s criminal underworld. The Fox Tower, with its bats, stray dogs, and nocturnal fox spirits that kept people away at night, was only a few hundred metres from the home Pamela shared with her seventy-two year old father, the retired diplomat and noted China scholar Edward T.C. Werner, author of such works as Ancient Tales and Folklore of China.

Pamela Werner was a young woman not directly involved in the political struggles and tensions of her time and place. The legacy of imperial China and warlordism, the conflict between the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communists, and the imminent Japanese occupation of Peking were not her preoccupations. During the winter school holidays of 1936-37 her life was one of tiffin, tea parties, dating, skating, and catching up with friends. But her life and death were marked by circumstances and forces beyond her knowledge or control. Pamela’s birth mother was most likely a White Russian refugee, one of the many who left babies at the local Peking orphanage. Her adoptive father was an old China hand, a British diplomat to China since the late 1880s who had settled into the life of a scholar and single parent subsequent to his retirement from the diplomatic service in 1914 and the death of his wife in 1922, when Pamela was five years old. Father and daughter lived in a city marked, and at times scarred, by the past, in a society on the brink of violent dissolution and reformation. Edward T.C. Werner would ultimately live to see China through many epochs: from the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, to the first Chinese republic, and from the chaos and bloodshed of the warlord era and the civil war, to the discipline and bloodshed of China re-united as the world’s most populous Communist state. Pamela lived and died only during a time of national disunity and unfulfilled hope, but she was partly cocooned by the wealth and privilege of declining colonial influence.

In 1937 Edward T.C. Werner and his daughter lived in a traditional Chinese compound filled with books and ancient Chinese scrolls, just outside the Foreign Legation and on the fringe of Peking’s Badlands. The Chinese underworld not far from the Werner’s doorstep was a place of gambling, prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and cheap accommodation for refugees. Poor, desperate, and sometimes ruthless foreigners crowded the narrow hutongs of Peking’s Badlands, swept into China by the forces of the Great Depression, revolution, and war. Poor, desperate, and sometimes ruthless Chinese also crowded into these narrow alleyways, escaping rural famine, civil war, or the Imperial Japanese Army advancing from China’s occupied northeast. But it would be a mistake to view the poor and desperate in isolation or to see them alone as ruthless. Paul French also looks at the lives of Peking’s wealthy and powerful foreigners, those who lived and worked in the Foreign Legation as diplomats, businessmen or professionals who enjoyed the benefits of their wealth and status as well as their legal privileges of extra-territoriality. They were subject to foreign law and policing, not the justice of China, although many of them did conduct business and seek various diversions in the Badlands. Midnight in Peking shows that by 1937 time was nearly up for the British and Americans in China, but this did not stop foreign snobbery or arrogance. Unctuous diplomats who upheld their dignity and protected themselves and their own kind, even at the cost of not solving a murder, and Legation residents like the wealthy American dentist Wentworth Prentice, who led a gang of sexual predators who charmed and then terrorised young women, proved that it was possible to smile and smile and be a villain.

When Pamela Werner was killed rumours began to circulate about the crime, and various theories as to the identity of the murderer were advanced: was she attacked by her elderly father? After all, Edward T.C. Werner was an eccentric loner with a history of striking people with a riding crop or a walking cane. In his days as a diplomat he had lashed out at some monks in a dispute over a camera in the Lama Temple, and Werner and his wife had thrashed a suspected Peeping Tom in one of his earlier diplomatic postings. Only days before Pamela’s murder, at the age of seventy-two Werner had broken the nose of a young, married Chinese student who he thought was pursuing his daughter. Moreover, fifteen years earlier Werner’s much younger and attractive wife, Gladys Nina, had died in suspicious circumstances from an overdose of Veronal, leaving a substantial sum of money to her five year old daughter. This inheritance would go to Werner if Pamela were to die.

Was Pamela murdered by a sexually frustrated Chinese man? Peking was awash with poor and desperate men without wives or means to procure prostitutes, even in the oversupplied market of the time where the price of many Chinese, Korean and White Russian prostitutes was extremely low. Pamela was an attractive young woman out alone at night in the Badlands. Moreover, the mutilation of Pamela Werner was so extreme that Foreign Legation racist opinion held that no white man could have done such a terrible thing.

Was Pamela the victim of mistaken identity in a shocking political assassination orchestrated by Dai Li, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s notorious henchman? The Werners lived two doors away from Edgar Snow and Helen Foster Snow, leading radical journalists and editors of the periodical Democracy. Edgar Snow had recently interviewed Mao Zedong and was working on Red Star Over China, his highly influential book that would present to the world a sympathetic view of the Communists. The Snows were hated by Chiang Kai-shek and his Blue Shirts, and Helen Foster Snow looked like a mature version of Pamela Werner, a young woman who rode her bicycle down the same lanes characteristically taken by her radical neighbour.

Or was there a secret in Pamela Werner’s past, or a mystery man in her present that could have led to her death? Pamela was only nineteen and seemed rather dowdy in her school photos from Tianjin Grammar School. But she was headstrong and had been expelled from a number of Peking schools as a teenager, that’s why she was boarding in Tianjin in the first place, and a few days before her murder Pamela posed for a studio portrait in Peking that made her look like a glamorous woman. Sydney Yeates, her headmaster in Tianjin, had recently made inappropriate advances to her, and so had other married men, including George Gorman, a hack journalist in Peking who would later fabricate an alibi for a suspect in Pamela’s murder and then collaborate with the Japanese invaders. There were rumours that Pamela was a party girl and had been seen the night before her death inquiring about room rental at a local hotel.

Was Pamela the victim of an unprovoked attack, a robbery gone wrong, and was she mutilated by wild dogs feeding on her corpse?

Or was she the victim of a maniac? Or of a sex cult that preyed on young women? A group of foreign men who hunted animals together also ran a nudist colony in the Western Hills outside Peking, and reportedly intimidated prostitutes and unsuspecting young women who they invited to parties, reportedly raping them or threatening them with their hunting knives. Suspects included high society deviants like the dentist Wentworth Prentice and his lowlife pals, including Pinfold, a pimp and former bodyguard to a warlord, and a brothel owner and club manager named Joe Knauf, an aggressive and distinctive criminal who can best be described as nasty, brutish and short.

The investigation of Pamela’s murder began quickly. In 1937 it was not unusual for dead bodies to be found in the streets and alleyways of Peking. There were many suicides from desperate people and victims of starvation, criminal gangs, and political assassinations. But it was highly unusual for a young white woman to be murdered. More unusual still was that the police investigation involved a joint effort between Chinese and British authorities. Pamela’s body was found in an area of Chinese jurisdiction (she lived and died outside the Foreign Legation), but Colonel Han was joined by a British policeman, DCI Dennis, seconded from Tianjin to help out the British authorities in Peking.

Far from achieving a quick and decisive resolution of the crime, the dual authority structure  of the investigation and the personality of the various police officers and their social circumstances led to myriad complications, cultural confusions, and interferences: should the reward for information be circulated in English and Chinese? (It was done only in English.) Could Dennis investigate and interrogate suspects in Chinese districts, including the Badlands, or only within the Foreign Legation? (He was restricted to the Foreign Legation.) Could Dennis order mandatory searches of foreign residences within the Legation? (Foreigners were spared this indignity.) Could Dennis interview the headmaster of Tianjin Grammar School who had allegedly propositioned his young boarder to the alarm both of Pamela and her father who lodged a formal complaint? (No, Sydney Yeates was allowed to discreetly resign and take his family back to England.) Could the authorities quarantine information from reporters or from crime suspects? (No, drunken police, braggarts, and officers keen to supplement their incomes – or perhaps in direct collusion with criminals – spilled clues or sold information vital to the case.) Was all evidence carefully checked or corroborated? (Definitely not. Some statements were outright lies. Wentworth Prentice said he had never met Pamela Werner, but he was her dentist. His alibi for the night of the murder – he and Gorman claimed that Prentice had been alone at the cinema – did not match the cinema schedule for that evening. In addition, Prentice lived across the road from the ice-skating rink from where Pamela disappeared, and in the middle of winter his apartment was suddenly repainted just days after her murder. It also seems that the story of the bloodstained rickshaw that allegedly carried Pamela’s body, propped up by two foreign men fitting the description of Prentice and Knauf, was suppressed as incriminating evidence. Was Colonel Han paid off by the owners of the brothel from where Pamela’s body was allegedly transported?)

The official investigation resulted in an open finding. No one was ever charged with Pamela’s murder. Despite years of effort and great personal expense, Edward T.C. Werner could never persuade the authorities to re-open the case, despite the new evidence he brought to light.

French’s investigation of Pamela’s murder follows the trail through contemporary newspaper articles, books by or about people of the time, interviews, and most crucially through documents in Britain’s National Archives at Kew, especially the letters, reports, and appeals written by Werner himself. The key documents from Edward T.C. Werner – many of them left unanswered or ignored by the British authorities – went significantly further than the official investigation and identified the suspected murderers, sexual predators led by the dentist Wentworth Prentice. Midnight in Peking presents a strong historical narrative with greater creative license than is standard with academic history books, but there are depictions of the world of thugs, drugs and prostitutes that sometimes read like a Chinese Raymond Chandler. The book is compelling, with a clear, persuasive argument, although I am not convinced that the case against Prentice would stand up in court.

Many of Werner’s informants were unreliable witnesses or people of ill-repute, such as drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals. Putting aside the important fact that some informants disappeared or died soon after speaking to Werner or his investigators, it is unlikely that their statements would ever have made it to court or been admissible as evidence, since their testimony was in many cases paid testimony or uncorroborated. Nonetheless, Werner and French raise legitimate questions about the failure of the official investigation and draw strong conclusions about the men they hold ultimately responsible for Pamela’s murder.

Pamela Werner died with both of her thumbs pressed hard into her palms and her fists tightly clenched. Only hours before, as she said goodbye to her friends at the skating rink and prepared to ride her bicycle home through the dark lanes on the edge of the Badlands, her final enigmatic and ironic words were in response to their concern about her safety: “I’ve been alone all my life…I am afraid of nothing – nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.” By early next morning her face and body were so badly mutilated that she had to be identified by her broken watch, her scattered clothes, and by one distinctive gray iris in her eye.

Midnight in Peking features other painful ironies. Edward T.C. Werner was a founder of Peking Union Medical College, an institution dedicated to the health and welfare of the local community. It was here that Pamela’s autopsy was conducted. And once the Imperial Japanese Army took decisive control of Peking and war was declared against the Allies, Edward T.C. Werner was forced into a prisoner of war camp where he was locked up alongside Wentworth Prentice, the man he believed was responsible for murdering and mutilating his daughter.

The old man survived the shock of his daughter’s death, and he made it through the traumas of internment during WWII. He lived to return to Peking, where he saw off the Nationalists, outlived Prentice, and witnessed the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Not welcomed by the Communists, Edward T.C. Werner finally left the country in which he had spent most of his life to return to a homeland he no longer recognised, finally dying in England in 1954, aged eighty-nine.

With Midnight in Peking French has produced a book that evokes a dramatic period in Chinese history, a decaying and disturbed society on the verge of violent upheaval and fundamental transformation. But it always remains a very personal story about Pamela Werner and her father. French balances the individual and the broadly historical to explore the murder of Pamela Werner in the context of a life for foreigners and locals in Peking that was disappearing or about to be swept aside. While explicit in the recreation of the crime scene and the depiction of Pamela’s pre- and post-mortem wounds, with the chapter on Pamela’s autopsy particularly disturbing, French never indulges in the pornography of violence. Midnight in Peking provides a sensitive portrait of Pamela Werner, a young woman who deserved justice and who deserves not to be forgotten. The book also provides a critical, nuanced, and fair judgment of Edward T.C. Werner, Pamela’s complex and grieving father who lived for China studies and who died still seeking justice for his daughter.


4 Responses to “Re-opening the Case: A Chinese Murder”

  1. JohnC said

    It is very easy to accuse 1930’s European society in China of being racist. But to say that they believed a White man could not have mutilated the girl is just racist nonsense. White people, dare I say it particularly American dentists, are just as capable of murder as anyone – that is why the reward posters were only in English!

    • glenjennings said

      Thanks John. I’m not sure that I’d agree with your suggestion that American dentists in particular are capable of murder, but I agree that racism is nonsense. If people are being treated equally, shouldn’t reward posters be in both English and the language of the local people? And shouldn’t the investigation be pursued fully, rather than be limited by boundaries such as language and the borders of the foreign quarter? Whether we like it or not, many Europeans of the time assumed such a murder could not have been committed by “one of their own.”

  2. hi Glen
    I know your review was a while back but thought you might be interested in the above website as it provides archive material which pretty much contradicts French’s claims that “nothing is made up”.
    Not sure how his book won the awards!


    check out “literary nonfiction” section and see why Penguin sells this as history!

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